I wrote up my thoughts in a lengthy letter that I send to Robert Parent
It was my intention to revise it for publication, but a colleague told me he
was writing an article of his
own in response to Parent's book, so I decided to wait until it appeared in print so that I could take it into account.
As Robert Parent
has pointed out in L'Affaire Sinouhé, it is clear that Sinuhe did not denounce the plot and that he
did not stand by his
royal master, and these were crimes.
Contrary to Sinuhe's expectations when he
heard the disloyal message, Sesostris survived and prevailed.
Sinuhe's absence was inquired into; here, I support Parent's brilliant interpretation of B227-228.
As pointed out by Robert Parent
in the study that inspired this essay, to be criminal, an act must be both voluntary and intentional.
Sinuhe intended to flee, to be sure.
But if his
act of flight was prompted by cowardice, that is, by overwhelming fear-or even, as Sinuhe entertains the notion, he
was carried away by divine intervention-was the flight really voluntary?
We have no means of knowing whether this distinction was a regularly operative factor in ancient Egyptian law, but at this same time, there is no reason to think-and this very text confirms it-that Egyptians were not capable of making the distinction in cases where it was applicable.
Further evidence that they were capable of such a subtlety is forthcoming, if one can accept my interpretation of an unfortunately broken passage in the Instruction for Merikare as distinguishing between criminal acts and criminal intentions that were not in fact carried out ("The Treatment of Criminals in Ancient Egypt through the New Kingdom," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20
Thus, in his
first communication to Sesostris-his reply to the king's letter-Sinuhe appeals to both the psychological and the divine intervention arguments, surely to explain away his
wrongfulness in not denouncing the plot and coming to the king's aid, and he
goes on to state, "I am not an insurgent" (n ink is q3-s3, B230), thus pointing out that his
wrongs were not prompted by disloyalty, a fact that is surely relevant in the context of the conspiracy against Sesostris.
But this self-defense is superfluous, for the king's decision was already made and announced to Sinuhe in the royal letter.
Sesostris did not entertain the possibility of divine will, and he
begins the letter somewhat sternly by reminding Sinuhe that his
flight was his
own decision (B181-183), but from what follows in the remainder of the communication, it is clear that he
is reproaching Sinuhe for foolishness, not accusing him of a crime.
Evidently, he understands that Sinuhe, who was an administrator and not a fighter, might have panicked and fled for his life, and in any case, if there was technically some wrong in the flight, much time has passed, and he does not intend to punish someone whom he acknowledges to be an old man (B189-190).
Further, the results of the official inquiry (which we know took place from a passage outside this letter (B227-230; here, I follow Robert Parent's
interpretation) showed, as the king states in the letter, that Sinuhe's disappearance was not because he
was a part of the defeated conspiracy (B183-184, again following Parent's interpretation).
In sum, the king tells Sinuhe that he
would not have prosecuted him even at that time (B185, again following Parent), and in dwelling at length on the burial that Sinuhe will receive eventually if he
will only return to Egypt (B190-199), Sesostris makes it clear that he
does not regard him as a criminal (sbi) who would have been denied a burial (Parenthetically, though no mention of it is made in the king's letter, given the fact that he
has been made aware of Sinuhe's situation through intermediaries [B173-174], perhaps we are to understand that in addition to his
humane choice not to hold Sinuhe's cowardice against him, Sesostris was also aware of the fact that Sinuhe had worked for years to "redeem his
In addition to the involuntary nature of Sinuhe's flight, the text advances another defense of Sinuhe's act, one that cleverly plays on the royal ideology.
Accepting that Sinuhe's panic did not in and of itself deserve punishment, one must (indeed, Sesostris must, though the words are not actually placed in his
mouth) acknowledge as well that the circumstance that prompted the flight was precisely his
loyalty to Sesostris in a situation in which he
was given every reason to think that this loyalty would cost him his
Further, this loyalty did not end when Sinuhe left Egypt, despite the fact that he
held at this time (to take the text at face value) no hope of the king's pardon: he
propagandized on behalf of Sesostris (thus his
paean of the king to Amunenshi), and he
entertained the king's ambassadors (B94-95); the latter could not possibly have been unknown to the king, or at least to his
At the end of the story, when Sesostris states, "he
(that is, Sinuhe) shall not fear, he
shall not dread," we must not allow the translation to mislead us.
"Fear" and "dread" (the Egyptian words are snD and Hryt) are terms that can have a negative connotation, but they also have a positive connotation in the royal ideology (this is well known, and Robert Parent
discusses the matter at length in his
book), and so the story, which begins with a flight ultimately occasioned by loyalty to the king, ends by using these words to express the notion that Sinuhe's loyalty is the reason why Sinuhe has not been prosecuted, but rather welcomed back into the royal household.
We can thus see that there is a reason for the precise choice of words when Sinuhe says to the king, in a context that plays upon the semantic range of the word Hryt, "dread is and will be in my body, like what caused the determined flight" (B262, again following Parent).
And this is why the royal children say to the king on the occasion of his
audience with Sinuhe at the end of the story, "he
made the flight in fear of you, he
left the land in dread of you" (B277-278), statements that can easily be interpreted as meaning, "he
fled because he
was loyal to you."